The black bear had just jumped onto the car's bumper and was starting to pull down a daypack from the open hatch when I walked up.
“Hey, a bear!” I yelled to my two companions standing 30 feet away. “There’s a bear!”
The host at the Whitney Portal campground had warned us about a bear that fancied campers’ food, so here he was, at 12:15 a.m., just as we readied ourselves to start the long trek to the top of Mount Whitney.
My friends Mark Nakamura and John Evans shined flashlights and yelled at the animal, and it began slowly moving off. Another minute of yelling, and it slipped into the darkness.
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“That was a bad sign,” Nakamura said. But I countered it was actually a good omen — his daypack was undamaged and we managed to get the bear to move off without too much trouble.
That accomplished, we returned to preparing for the real challenge. A half moon shining above us was comforting as we headed toward the start of the Mount Whitney trail.
Months before, the three of us, all in our 50s and living in San Luis Obispo, signed on to hike to the top of Mount Whitney. We each had backpacking experience, and Nakamura and Evans were particularly knowledgeable about the Sierra. But none of us had yet reached Whitney. Whether it was a bucket-list goal or just a midlife test, we each wanted to be atop the highest point in the Lower 48.
Depending on who is doing the measuring, Whitney stands at nearly 14,500 feet. Getting a permit to do the hike is itself a challenge — the Forest Service holds a lottery to limit how many people can be on the trail per day during summer due to high demand. We selected Tuesday, July 10, thinking a midweek date might be successful. Our request for a day-use permit was granted. But that meant we had to go up and back in one day, a trek of 22 miles, much of it above 10,000 feet.
We woke at midnight and started the hike at 1:15 a.m., headlamps and moonlight illuminating the trail. A steady climb with just a few switchbacks took us out of Whitney Portal and up toward Lone Pine Lake. We were not the only ones getting an early start — other headlamps glowed down the trail behind us, like fireflies dancing in the darkness.
The air was cool, not cold, and still. The forest was quiet, and the stars overhead were gorgeous. Far from being an eerie experience, hiking in the dark was calm and peaceful.
By 4:30 a.m. the first hints of daylight were showing over the Inyo Mountains on the east side of the Owens Valley. Soon a ribbon of red sunrise stretched over those hills. By 6 a.m. the massive granite peaks above us were bathed in pink sunrise, and we could turn our headlamps off.
By 6:30 we reached Trail Camp — a spot to sleep overnight before hiking to the summit (separate permit required). It was about two-thirds of the way, so we stopped for breakfast. The camp bustled with others readying to attempt Whitney.
We got back on the trail an hour later and faced the next challenge — the (in)famous 98 switchbacks (like Whitney’s elevation, the exact count can vary). The path winds and winds and winds upward toward the ridge where we would join the Pacific Crest Trail.
As we mounted the switchbacks, we could view hikers below following us. We came to the spot where a cable railing had been bolted into rock. “This is for when there is snow,” Evans noted. By this date in July, all snow had melted away.
By now we were at 12,000 feet, and focused on climbing slowly and steadily. Forest Service signs at the trailhead repeatedly advised hikers to take it easy and not push too fast. We were happy to do just that.
Upon reaching the crest, we had two miles left in the final push to the top. While climbing Whitney does not require technical skills, it does force alertness, even caution. The trail was mostly loose rocks and boulders, and sections along the ridge were narrow, no more than 2 feet wide, the drop-off easily 100 feet or more.
Yet the view was remarkable: We could see across the width of the Sierra. Ribbon upon ribbon of granite peaks were exposed before us. Sapphire-blue lakes shimmered in valleys below. We felt like we were on the top of the world, and in a sense, we were.
Whitney is the highest point in the continental U.S., but it is not a majestic peak like the Matterhorn or even Everest. Its hulking shape came into view only as we got close.
Once we reached the back side, it took another half hour of climbing to reach the summit’s famous stone house, which was built in 1909 with funds from the Smithsonian Institution. By 11:30 a.m., we were there.
We dropped our packs, took long sips from our water bottles and sat down for lunch. The air was surprisingly warm — we estimated 70 degrees — and there was no wind and few clouds. Looking east, we saw mountain ranges that we guessed were in Nevada.
Nakamura stretched out over a boulder for a quick nap; Evans pulled off his wool socks to put on a fresh pair. Other hikers sat around us, celebrating the accomplishment of reaching the summit.
We stayed at the summit for only half an hour. Eleven miles up meant we had 11 miles down still to go. Some advice a friend had given was to use hiking poles, and indeed, they were a necessity going downhill, as we bounded from boulder to boulder.
By late afternoon we had crossed back through the switchbacks, and actually counted 100, but we were in no mood to quibble. Fatigue was becoming a factor, our feet were sore, and we wanted this hike to be over. It would not end until 7:15 p.m.
“I can’t believe we actually hiked this,” Nakamura said as we neared Whitney Portal, having achieved a marathon’s worth of walking, climbing and scrambling.
We decided to sleep in a motel room that night, so we quickly broke camp and headed to Tehachapi. We left early the next morning and arrived back in San Luis Obispo several hours later.
My wife, Donna, later remarked how exhausted the three of us looked.
“I am glad I did it, but I don’t need to do that again,” said Nakamura.
I felt that way, too. Yet now, with some time having passed, I’ve begun thinking about other friends in SLO who need to experience the highest point in California. Maybe I will guide them.
Mount Whitney: Quick Facts
How to get there: From San Luis Obispo, take Highway 46 East from Paso Robles to Wasco. Proceed east to Highway 99 and head south to Bakersfield, then east on Highway 58 to Highway 14. Then head north to the Highway 395 junction and go to Lone Pine. Whitney Portal Road is downtown and the only stoplight. Go left and head toward the mountains. Whitney Portal campground is 13 miles ahead. Reservations are advised, especially in summer, but my group was able to walk up and find a site. Pit toilets and water are on site; Lone Pine Creek runs through the middle of the campground.
Permits required: Between May 1 and Nov. 1, a permit is required to hike and camp on the Mount Whitney Trail. Otherwise, hikers face a hefty fine. This Forest Service website outlines how to get the necessary permits: www.fs .usda.gov/detail/inyo/passes-permits/recreation.
WAG bag: To minimize the environmental impact on Mount Whitney, the Forest Service requires all hikers to pack out their solid waste. Upon getting the permit in the interagency headquarters in Lone Pine, the staff will also provide the WAGs. Use instructions are simple, and toilet paper and wipe are included.
Starbucks: For those who must have good coffee on the way, there is a Starbucks in Tehachapi. Take the first exit as you come to town, go right and proceed straight to Tehachapi Boulevard. The Starbucks is at the first intersection, across the street from a Walgreens. There is also a Kmart in Tehachapi in case one forgets any gear.
How to train for the hike
Hiking to the top of Mount Whitney, especially in one day, is an arduous challenge even for those who are fit. Fortunately, the slope is gradual. Training hikes in the coastal hills of San Luis Obispo County are steeper.
While no training at sea level can duplicate the high elevations of the eastern Sierra, I focused on swim workouts and emphasized going underwater while holding my breath. I also bicycled up steep hills near San Luis Obispo such as Prefumo Canyon.
One of the best things I did was follow advice of recent research by doctors at Stanford University, UC San Diego and the University of Hawaii. Their finding (Annals of Emergency Medicine, June 2012) was that taking 600 milligrams of ibuprofen every four hours would limit the effects of altitude sickness. I began taking that dosage at 8 the night before my group’s hike. I took my next dose at midnight, when I got up, then every four hours thereafter. Sure enough, I had no headache or fuzzy feeling due to altitude. And a side benefit was the anti-inflammation help for my 53-year-old knees and hips.
Other attractions near Mount Whitney
Mount Whitney is not the only thing to see in the Owens Valley. Here are two other neat possibilities:
Hang gliders: One of the nation’s best hang-gliding spots is off Horseshoe Meadow Road, just southwest of Lone Pine. Take Whitney Portal Road to its intersection with Horseshoe Meadow Road and head south. The road heads steeply up the mountain. Look for a pullout at 9,000 feet; a big rock with a plaque affixed marks the spot. This is Walt’s Point; pilots at the spot the day I visited said it is named for a road worker who was killed when his backhoe slipped off the pavement as he cleared snow away. The morning updrafts allow hang gliders to reach 14,000 feet and soar 40 miles north along the Sierra before they cross over into Nevada. Pilots arrive in the morning to check on conditions; by afternoon they are generally gone.
Manzanar: The place where Japanese-Americans were relocated during World War II is about 10 miles north of Lone Pine on Highway 395 and well worth the visit. The former gym has been converted into the visitor center with excellent displays telling the sad story of how Japanese Americans were rounded up from throughout cities on the West Coast and shipped to the Owens Valley, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles. A selfguided driving tour is also available. Be prepared for weather extremes. On the day of my visit in July, the temperature was about 102 degrees, and a stiff wind made it feel like standing before a hair dryer. The opposite is true in winter, when it can be bitterly cold.